By Jessica Anderson and Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun
9:45 PM EDT, June 27, 2012
A Baltimore County police officer was indicted Wednesday in the death of a Randallstown teen, but the charges drew criticism from the boy's mother and the community, who continued calls for an outside investigation.
James D. Laboard, a nine-year veteran, faces charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter in the asphyxiation death of 17-year-old Christopher Brown, whom police said he chased after a group of teens threw a rock at his front door on June 13. Each count carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.
The officer, who was off duty at the time of the fight, surrendered to authorities and was released on his own recognizance after a hearing in Circuit Court attended by relatives and police colleagues who testified on his behalf. He is suspended without pay.
The charges mark the first time in decades that a county officer has faced criminal accusations in an incident involving the fatal use of force. Police Chief James Johnson said he could recall no such charge in his 34 years with the department.
"This is a difficult day for the Baltimore County Police Department, and a tragic one for everyone involved," Johnson said in a statement. "[T]he evidence shows that at a moment during this altercation, Officer Laboard stepped beyond the scope of his employment. He, as well as the Brown family, deserved a thorough investigation of the facts, which we have conducted."
Christopher Brown's mother and other community leaders had become increasingly vocal in recent days, following the funeral for the Randallstown High School student, who died two weeks ago. At a community meeting this week, his mother, Chris Brown, called for swift action and said she believed Laboard was getting preferential treatment.
Chris Brown complained on Wednesday that she had expected a more serious charge.
"They're not trying to be fair," she told reporters. She plans to ask federal authorities to take the case. "It doesn't stop here," she said. She plans to hold a rally in protest outside the state's attorney's office in Towson on Monday.
At a news conference, Johnson commended Chris Brown for her courage. "We have assured her that this has been and will be a complete, fair and thorough investigation."
The law firm for the police union released a statement Wednesday saying that Laboard, assigned to the Woodlawn precinct, "acted in full accordance with his rights and responsibilities under the law" but that "the appropriate venue for obtaining the truth is in the courtroom."
State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said neither the fact that Laboard was a county police officer nor the public pressure affected the timing of the charges. A grand jury handed down the indictment Wednesday.
He met with Brown two days after her son's death and then again shortly before the indictment was announced. "Every time, we have assured her of a thorough, impartial investigation and we have kept our word," he said.
Shellenberger said it was county residents who served on the grand jury and made the determination that charges of manslaughter, which results from acting in a grossly negligent manner, were appropriate.
But Brown's attorney, Russell Neverdon, said he believes the case could have supported a second- or first-degree murder charge.
"The picture they are giving us is that we're clearly not dealing with the average citizen," he said. "It doesn't add up."
When he heard Laboard was released without having to post bail, which Neverdon said is unusual, he said, "It does add salt to the wound."
In court, Laboard stood without handcuffs in front of a Baltimore County judge, wearing a white T-shirt and khakis. He did not speak.
"It's a not a matter of leniency, it's a matter of what's appropriate," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Jan Marshall Alexander at the hearing, explaining why no bail was required.
Prosecutor Robin Coffin said Laboard "has cooperated with the state and made himself available these last two weeks."
Several family members and co-workers attended and spoke on his behalf.
Officer Timothy Bowman, who worked with Laboard for seven years, said, "Jim defuses situations with his calm demeanor."
Another officer, Juanika Ballard, who said she's worked with Laboard for nine years, said he was a close friend whom she would trust with her life.
Attorney Shaun Owens, who represents the police union, added in Wednesday's statement that the death "is a tragic event" and that "we extend our deepest sympathies to the Brown family. It is important for the community to bear in mind that tragedy does not require blame."
In the most recent area prosecution surrounding a police-involved death, Baltimore City Officer Gahiji Tshamba was convicted last June of voluntary manslaughter for shooting an unarmed Marine veteran outside a Mount Vernon bar. The judge who sentenced him to 15 years in prison called his actions "repugnant."
Police said Tshamba shot Tyrone Brown 12 times during a drunken dispute that erupted after the victim groped a woman and the off-duty officer, a 15-year veteran with a history of disciplinary problems, pulled his service weapon to defend her honor.
The last time city prosecutors targeted a police officer in connection with a fatal on-duty shooting was in 2008, when Officer Tommy Sanders was charged with manslaughter for shooting an unarmed man twice in the back at the Hamilton Shopping Center. A jury acquitted him in 2010, believing his account that he saw the man he was chasing reach into his coat pocket.
The charges in the Laboard case came as detectives continued to investigate another incident in which a suspect was injured in an altercation with a Baltimore County officer. The suspect, who has not been identified, is in critical condition after the officer in the Towson Precinct struck him with a flashlight during an arrest earlier this week. The suspect faces second-degree assault charges against the officer.
Police said the altercation between Laboard and Brown began when a teen Brown was with threw a rock at Laboard's home on Susanna Road in Randallstown.
One of Brown's friends who spoke with The Baltimore Sun said Brown was not the one who threw the rock at Laboard's door and that he was opposed to the activity they called "knicker-knocking," throwing rocks and ringing doorbells at random houses.
Laboard ran after the teens who scattered from his home, catching up to Brown a few blocks away, where Brown hid in some bushes.
Brown's mother had said he had suffered from a torn ACL injury that forced him to wear a leg brace and made it difficult to walk.
When Laboard confronted him in the bushes and demanded that he come out, police said, Brown refused and the officer pulled him out. They got into a physical confrontation and Brown fell unconscious. Laboard called for help and attempted to resuscitate Brown, police said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.
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